Lord Rama appeared in Bengal’s religious scene with the advent of Bhakti movement in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, mainly under the leadership of Mahaprabhu Chaitanya who worshipped Krishna and Rama as the supreme manifestations of god’s human avatar. Over the next five centuries, however, Chaitanya himself became far more popular among Bengali Hindus than Rama, while Krishna continues to be one of the most popular deities in the state.
The iconic ‘Hare Krishna’ chant Chaintya coined also includes ‘Hare Ram’. However, while festivals related to Radha and Krishna transcended all sects among Bengali Hindus, and the state has innumerable temples dedicated to Radha-Krishna, temples dedicated to Rama are, indeed, difficult to find. Rama, as deity, has not been part of Bengal’s socio-religious culture pointed out experts even as the Sang pariah organised mega celebrations of Ram Navami on Wednesday for the first time.
“It is interesting to note that Chaitanya worshipped both Rama and Krishna. His influence played a key role in the spread of Lord Krishna’s popularity across the state and among all sects of Bengali Hindus. Vaishnavite literature centering on the love between Radha and Krishna became very popular and are still considered important part of Bengali literature. The worship of Rama, however, never gained popularity. Chaitanya himself is far more accepted as a human avatar of the god than Rama,” said eminent indologist Nrisingha Prasad Bhaduri.
Michael Madhusudan Dutta’s modern epic Meghnad Badh kabya (1861) – that hailed Ravana as a hero and looked down upon Rama – went on to become one of the most iconic literary creations of the Bengal Renaissance period. It speaks of a view that is diametrically opposite to that highlighted by the saffron camp.
While Durga puja is the state’s biggest annual festival, and her daughters Laxmi and Saraswati are among the most popular household deities, temples dedicated to Radha-Krishna, Shiva and Kali dot West Bengal’s towns and villages. Among other deities popular in the state are goddesses Annapoorna, Jagaddhatri, Manasa, Sitala and Santoshi, while the popular Hindu festivals include Dol Jatra, Rath Jatra, Kali puja, Shivaratri, Saraswati Puja, Laxmi puja, Jagaddhatri puja and Jhulan.
According to historian Goutam Bhadra and poet Sankha Ghosh, the latter was awarded the Jnanpith in 2016, the stories from Ramayana have been popular in Bengali literature, especially the Bengali Ramayana by Krittibas Ojha, as well as various folk art forms, but Rama as a deity never gained popularity.
“Apart from the Bengali Ramayana written in the medieval era, tales from the epic were popular themes in Bengali folk theatres (jatra pala) and plays during the 18th and the 19th centuries. Worshipping Rama, however, had never been popular,” Ghosh said.
The saffron camp’s mega celebration of Ram Navami last Wednesday in all districts of the state – with participants carrying swords, tridents and falchions – was planned to increase Rama’s religious appeal in Bengal. A large number of the participants in these processions were people hailing from north and western part of the country who have settled in West Bengal. At the same time, religious people in the Bengali-Hindu-dominated rural and urban localities were busy worshipping goddess Annapoorna. The puja is mostly organised by one or two families in a locality and the neighbours are all invited.
“Krittibas Ojha’s Bengali Ramayana has remained popular for centuries. Stories from Ramayan are also found on terracotta temples. But Rama is popular in Bengal as a literary character and not as deity,” Bhadra said.
Beside literature and architecture, stories from Ramayana have been popular in Bengal’s folk art forms as well, from the chhou dance of Purulia to the work of the scroll painter-singers of Midnapore and Burdwan.
“However, Chintaharan Chakraborty’s authoritative book on the religious festivals and rituals of Bengali Hindus clearly shows Ram Navami as a minor religious programme. It is mostly observed as a vrata among a marginal section. Devotees maintain fast during the day but no idol is worshipped,” Bhadra added.
Another minor religious event is punyapukur vrata, during which women pray for a husband like Rama. “However, Shiva Ratri, during which unmarried women seek a husband like Shiva and married women pray for their husband’s wellbeing, is far more popular among Bengali women than punyapukur vrata,” said educationist Pabitra Sarkar, former vice-chancellor of Rabindra Bharati University.
Film and literature critic Sanjay Mukhopadhyay pointed out that Bengali literature has showered more sympathy on Sita than praises on Rama. “Meghnad Badh showed Rama in poor light, while eulogising Ravana and Indrajit. But it became very popular and attained iconic status. On the other hand, Bibhishana, who betrayed Ravana and sided to Rama, is a hated character in Bengal and considered a traitor. The most popular reference to him is ‘ghorer shotru Bibhishan’ which roughly means the enemy at home,” Mukhopadhyay said.